Bumming Around Bohol

Bumming Around Bohol
A temporarily-blinded tarsier at the Bohol Tarsier Sanctuary

After nearly two months of packing up and moving once every few days, I grew weary of constantly searching for accommodations, places to eat, and things to do and decided to settle in somewhere for a while.

That somewhere eventually became a little island called Panglao in the province of Bohol.

It's a place I always considered a strong contender for an extended stay since I started researching the country. I was instantly smitten upon arrival and immediately started looking for a room to rent by the month.

The island is a hotspot for diving, especially freediving, with sea turtles and whale sharks in the area.

It has an international airport and a busy tourist area around Alona Beach, but much of the rest of the island is still natural and relatively undeveloped.

There aren't any high-rise buildings or giant resorts. Palm, banana, and mango trees are everywhere. Instead of chopping them all down to build giant condominiums, they simply leave them. What a concept.

Traffic isn't bad except around Alona at night. There are plenty of restaurants offering a variety of cuisines.

I find a room for rent in a one-story building of about 12 apartments. Despite it being a little pricier and further away from the tourist area than I wanted, I jump at the chance due to the good work setup.

After securing a monthly motorbike rental and joining a local gym, I'm ready to get back into a more normal daily routine.

It turns out several people living here work in IT, so the network is fast and each room has an ethernet cable built in. There's even a solar-powered backup router in case of power outages, which are not exactly uncommon.

The building is also very soundly built, unlike many natural-looking bamboo structures in the area that seem to be popular with other travelers.

Although I love having nature around me, I don't like having nature in my room, so the solid walls make me hopeful of being able to keep most critters out. (Aside from one baby gecko and one huntsman spider that liked to hang out in my toilet, this proves to be true.)

There's a pool, a laundry area, a small workout area, and a shared outdoor kitchen (in addition to a kitchenette in each room). The complex is surrounded on three sides by mango trees. Occasionally, I hear one plop down on the tin roof.

The building is Russian-owned, so most of my neighbors are Russian. Although I've encountered enough Russians to know there is some truth to the stereotypes about their gruffness, my new neighbors are mostly a friendly lot.

I make friends with the scrawny, long-haired guy named Alex from the room next to mine. His beard makes him look older, but I suspect he's only around 30 years old. He has stayed on the island for nearly half a year.

He tells me was only able to get out of Russia during the war due to having a disability, although it's not apparent what that disability might be.

He can't drive a motorbike and isn't fond of the local cuisine, so he frequently takes public transportation to Tagbilaran, the main city on Bohol island, to buy food because there isn't a proper supermarket in Panglao.

But first, he has to get to the bus stop, which means either taking a tuk-tuk – considerably more expensive here than in other places in the country– or walking a long distance in the heat.

It only takes about 20-25 minutes to drive to the city by motorbike from where we stay, but he probably spends close to an hour each way after the additional distance to the public market and the many stops the bus surely makes along the route.

I give him a ride one day as I happen to be heading to the gym as he was leaving to start his journey.

He is faced with the dilemma of not being able to return home for the foreseeable future or going back and possibly getting trapped there or even drafted into the war.

Still, he is strongly considering going back later in the year, tired of what he calls "the eternal summer" here.

Homesickness is such a powerful thing that it can even make you miss a Russian winter, apparently.

One day, we head over to the neighboring uninhabited lot to nab a couple of papayas. I hold the ladder while he pries off the still-green fruit from the tree with his bare hands.

Alex soon leaves, bound for Thailand, and is quickly replaced by a Russian couple.

Most days pass by uneventfully. I become a regular at a coffee shop in the same shopping center as my gym as well as in several restaurants.

I eat lunch nearly every day at one of many carinderias, which are food shops that serve pre-cooked dishes. Think of it as the Filipino version of a meat-and-three. I can choose several different dishes with some rice and it usually costs no more than $2-3.

How's this for a homey feel? They just set up some tables in their backyard and grill up some food while their kids ride their bikes around the tables.

Adopting the local custom of merienda, an afternoon snack usually of some type of bread or pastry accompanied by coffee, comes very naturally to me. Many goods from local bakeries cost only five pesos (less than $0.10) apiece.

I often buy an extra piece or two to share with stray dogs that hang around outside the bakery.

Speaking of strays, one gets killed by a car along the road in front of my place. The next morning, the already-bloated body is set on fire. It's an understandable way to get rid of it, but that doesn't make it any more pleasant to see.

Sadly, this isn't an uncommon occurrence here, as dogs often lie in or alongside the roads, many of which are poorly lit. Another time, I come across a little dog with its guts freshly spilled onto the asphalt.

One day, I come back and finish putting my bike up when I remember that I need to buy something. Rather than taking the bike back out again, I decide it would be simpler to just walk.

I set out along the road when I hear kittens mewing from across the street. I find two of them hiding in some bushes.

Fortunately, they are old enough to eat solid food, so I give them some canned tuna I already had in my room. They are too scared of me to let me take them, so I leave some water for them and go back to my room.

The next morning, there's no sign of them. I listen for them again in the evening, but am nearly ready to give up when I hear their faint cries.

This time, they come running out of the bushes towards me and into the road as I approach them. I grab them and take them back to my room. After I feed them again, they revert to acting scared of me and hide under my bedside table.

I finally pry them out and put them in a laundry basket on top of my lone blanket and leave them in the shower for the night. I figure it will be easier to clean up after them in there if they use the bathroom.

Luckily, I find someone who wants to adopt them the next morning after making a post about them in a few local Facebook groups.

I get familiar with the local fauna, like a gigantic leaf-like beetle with furry antennae that makes a clicking sound when threatened.

I'm reminded of the dangers of falling coconuts when one drops and explodes in the road just in front of me. It's a good enough reason to wear a helmet despite the lack of enforcement of the law here.

I get addicted to a frozen dessert called "mango float." It's made of layers of cream mixed with condensed milk, mango, and graham crackers.

I also discover I'm quite fond of a raw fish dish called kinilaw. It's similar to ceviche but with vinegar instead of lime juice.

One day, I notice a kid walking down the street with a toy I haven't seen in decades. I have to search online to even remember what to call them.

Clackers. Or lato-lato, as they are called here.

Apparently, the toy made an unlikely revival in Indonesia last year and its popularity spread here through TikTok.

Suddenly, I see and hear them everywhere I go. It's surprising but also oddly charming to witness a toy from way back in my childhood become a hot new trend. It's hard to imagine kids in America these days being entertained by them for even a few seconds.

Before I know it, I've been here for well over a month and haven't even seen any of Bohol's tourist attractions, aside from taking a swim in Hinagdanan Cave one morning. I finally talk myself into driving to the Chocolate Hills one day, about 90 minutes away.

The drive is much more enjoyable than I had imagined. Along the way, I stop at the Blood Pact Shrine in Tagbilaran that commemorates a compact made between a local chieftain and a Spanish explorer in the 1500s and then at San Pedro Church, yet another building that was recently restored after being heavily damaged by an earthquake.

I continue alongside the Loboc River before climbing a switchback called "Chicken Intestine Road." I then pass through a manmade mahogany forest and cruise past rice paddies fringed by rows of towering palms.

I make it to the parking area for the Chocolate Hills just before a rain shower. Fortunately, there's a shuttle service that drops you off at the base of the main viewing platform included in the price of a ticket that costs less than $1.

I have a lousy, overpriced meal and a cup of coffee at the restaurant while waiting for the rain to subside. By the time I finish, it's still sprinkling, so I climb the nearly 200 steps to the top without having to fight much of a crowd. The lingering haze only adds a bit to their mystique.

I had hoped to visit a waterfall while I was in the area, but I know it would be a muddy mess, so I decide to head back. I fight the urge to drive down some small paths between the hills as the surrounding clouds are still threatening to dump more rain and I don't have a raincoat with me.

Just a short distance down the road, it starts raining again. I pull off and huddle under a covered bus stop with a few Filipino guys. After only a few minutes, the rain lets up. The locals all take off on their bikes, so I follow suit.

It isn't long before I catch up with more rain, even heavier than before. I'm in the countryside by now and don't see anywhere to pull off or anywhere that might sell a raincoat. By the time I spot a place to stop, I'm already soaked and figure I might as well keep going.

I pass several "flood-prone area" warning signs. A truck roars by in the opposite direction, sending a wave of water over me.

Ten minutes later, it's sunny again. By the time I pass the Bohol Tarsier Sanctuary, I'm no longer dripping wet, so I decide to pull in.

There seem to be only a handful of the little primates there but hundreds of tourists fighting over positioning to get the best picture. The sky darkens and it starts pouring again.

I commit the faux pas of accidentally leaving my flash on "automatic" so when one of the workers offers to help me take a close-up photo, it fires brightly right in the bulging, highly-sensitive eyes of a scared tarsier huddled under a leaf.

I wait for the rain to stop and visit a couple more churches on the way back to Panglao. By the time I get back, I'm completely dry except for my socks and shoes.